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Big Guys, Babies, and Beauty
Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, by Ellen Dissanayake; xvii & 265 pp. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000, $29.95.
The intellectual climate of postmodernism has not been particularly encouraging for the development of an evolutionary theory of the arts. Concentrated in constructionist modes of analysis and interpretation for the past thirty years, the social sciences and humanities have asserted that aesthetic objects and practices are produced and regulated by social and cultural structures, and serve overwhelmingly to reinforce those structures. In its most extreme form, postmodern constructionism claims that all meaning or significance derives from social and cultural factors, and that perceived truth is a matter of agreement or a function of power. If, for instance, we like Edward Weston's photographs and Georgia O'Keefe's paintings because we observe striking similarities between the organic forms represented in them and features of the human form, postmodernism counsels us that our preferences are dictated by social and cultural regulators, such as current discourses about nature and art, and not in any way by predisposed attractions to types of natural objects or to the relationships between them.
Certainly, it would be foolhardy to argue that social and cultural context have no influence on either the type of art that is produced or its reception in any given culture, but a thoroughgoing or strong [End Page 155] constructionism is another matter. 1 Strong constructionism cannot explain--or, to be more accurate, refuses to explain--why we have art in the first place. Recent intellectual fashion has dictated, in sum, that the most interesting questions about art, the truly thought-provoking and hard questions, should not be asked. Yet even in an era inimical to the study of complexity, some scholars will continue to grapple with the interesting questions. So it is that within the past twelve years Ellen Dissanayake has published three books that together stand as the major contribution to an evolutionary understanding of the arts.
Dissanayake's three books--What Is Art For? (1988); Homo Aestheticus: Where the Arts Come From and Why (1992); and, most recently, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (2000)--build on one another, elaborating a functional account of the genesis and adaptive value of the arts. 2 It is fitting that each volume amplifies Dissanayake's central theory, representing, as it were, a new stage in that theory's evolution, for elaboration is a key concept in Dissanayake's work.
First and foremost, Dissanayake establishes the need for a functional account of art in What Is Art For? before developing her central thesis. Pointing out that what we know of pre-industrial cultures is inconsistent with the traditional approach to aesthetics, Dissanayake fruitfully suggests we readjust our intellectual lens. Whereas aestheticians have been preoccupied for centuries with discovering a transcendent essence for art, a functional and evolutionary account reveals the myopia of such an approach. Premodern cultures, because they do not separate life into discrete categories including the real and everyday, the imaginative and aesthetic, and the religious, have no concept of art apart from everyday activities or utilitarian considerations and, therefore, the study of these cultures calls the existence of a transcendent art essence into question. As constructionist colleagues would be happy to point out, the quest for essences does indeed attest to a cultural bias, that particular bias being an overwhelming tendency to conceptualize in rigid dualities within modern western culture; simultaneously, the quest for essences conflicts with an evolutionary understanding of human beings and their practices. In thus preparing the ground for her central argument, Dissanayake recommends persuasively the need for a major shift in focus among aestheticians, who are encouraged to look at how art behaviors work in adaptively significant ways within human social life.
In Dissanayake's account, all of those activities, adornments, and the like in pre-industrial culture that we today see as the ancestors of [End Page 156] modern art forms exemplify a predisposition toward elaboration or, in her chosen phrase...